Preliminary data from the 2002 Census of Agriculture indicate a drop of 86,650 total farms, or 3.9 percent, from 1997 to 2002. All but eight states had fewer farms in 2002.

California had a decline of more than 8,000 farms during the period, says Rich Allen, deputy administrator of programs and products for USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, while Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa each had losses of more than 6,000.

A slight increase in Texas, with 10.7 percent of the total farms in the nation, helped to minimize the percent loss in total U.S. farms, he says. Other states that held steady or increased farm numbers were Alaska, Colorado, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Oregon, and Wyoming.

Going back to 1978, the census figures show a drop of nearly 350,000 farms, Allen says, with the biggest declines in the periods 1982-1987 and 1987-1992.

The number of farms with $10,000 and above in sales, which represented nearly 50 percent of the census-adjusted numbers in 1978, has shown “a steady decline” in each subsequent census. Between 1978 and 2002, the number of farms in this sales class declined by 337,132, or 28 percent, with more than a third of that occurring between 1997 and 2002.

Farms in the $10,000 to $99,999 category declined by nearly 425,000, or 43.3 percent, during the 1978-2002 period, while farms with $100,000 or more in sales increased by 86,254, or 38.5 percent.

Over the past five years, the number of farms in the top sales class, $500,000 or more, increased by 404, while the $100,000 to $499,999 category declined by 41,276, or 14.8 percent.

The census showed that 20.6 percent of the reporting farms, 427,289, had two or more families sharing net farm income from an operation.

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com